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Comments (55) Posted 09.20.04 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Michael Bierut

Graphic Designers, Flush Left?

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, El Lissitzky, 1919

David Brooks, cultural observer and author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, proposed an alternative analysis of the American political scene in his New York Times column recently.

"There are two sorts of people in the information-age elite, spreadsheet people and paragraph people," wrote Brooks. "Spreadsheet people work with numbers, wear loafers and support Republicans. Paragraph people work with prose, don't shine their shoes as often as they should and back Democrats." He went on to point out that "C.E.O.'s are classic spreadsheet people," five times more likely to donate to Bush than Kerry, and "Professors, on the other hand, are classic paragraph people," with Kerry donors outnumbering Bush donors eleven to one.

Are graphic designers spreadsheet people, paragraph people, or something else altogether? Where do we fall on the political spectrum? Do we even have to ask?

Paragraph people or number people, most of the designers I know lean left. My perspective may be skewed: I practice, after all, in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans five to one. Yet judged by their poster projects , manifestos and t-shirt contests , there is plenty of evidence that this is more than a local anomaly. Brooks posits an "intellectual affiliation theory." Number people, reassured by the "false clarity that numbers imply," respond to Bush's simple (minded?) decisiveness; paragraph people like the "postmodern, post-Cartesian, deconstructionist, co-directional ambiguity of Kerry's Iraq policy."

This makes sense. Graphic designers largely operate in a world of ambiguity, and with their antipathy to focus group testing and double-entry bookkeeping, most are definitely not number people.

This left-wing bias has deep historic roots. So much modern graphic design traces its roots back to the typographic innovations of the avant-garde work of early Soviet designers like Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Stepanova and the Stenberg Brothers. Pioneering American graphic designers like Paul Rand, Charles Coiner and Lester Beall were nurtured in the crucible of FDR's New Deal and the anti-Fascist fervor of the late thirties.

On the other hand, the most devastatingly effective design program of the twentieth century was commissioned by Adolf Hitler. A rigorously applied graphic identity, potent event planning, single minded architectural design: no design detail was too petty for the Third Reich, even (in a weird echo of this moment's obsession with the political uses of vintage office equipment) the customization of typewriters, each one of which was fitted out with a key that would render the twin lightning bolt logo of the SS. Based on the historical record, might Brooks be tempted to further sort out corporate identity designers on the right, and poster designers on the left?

Some professionals feel that design and politics shouldn't mix. After Bill Drenttel posted his unashamedly partisan article on the Bush National Guard documents controversy, Adrian Hanft wrote, "Time after time this blog pushes its political agenda and I am tired of it...I am baffled as to why you can't stick to the issue that you are good at: observing design." On the blog he runs with a group of writers including Bennett Holzworth, Hanft makes their own position clear: "Politics is not off limits, but when the topic comes up, you can be sure we are talking about design, and not pushing an agenda or endorsing a candidate. Doing so can only lessen the impact of our design discussion. We are professional graphic designers who have dedicated our lives to design, not politics. You don't care what our political views are, do you?"

Well, actually, I do. Many subsequent writers seemed to assume that Hanft and Holzworth were writing from a pro-Bush position but, true to form, they never disclosed their own leanings. I for one would like to hear from more conservative designers, if they truly exist. One of the few is Christian Robertson, who described himself as "one of the few registered Republican typoholics" while posting on Typographica. "The one thing I take from this," he wrote about the Bush documents controversy, "is that you can't underestimate the power of political/cultural identity in shaping thought. In all of the blogs, news stories, newspaper articles, and cable 'shout shows' I've seen in the past couple days (and believe me, I've seen a lot of them), almost never did anyone support a view that crossed their team affiliation. People will sometimes grudgingly change their view, but it takes a true preponderance of evidence."

I would add that you can't underestimate the power of political and cultural identity in shaping design as well. As much you might like to separate your political beliefs from your professional life, in the end it's folly. Satirist Tom Lehrer put it best in his song about mid-century America's most notorious non-ideological specialist, Werner von Braun, the Nazi weapons expert who joined the postwar space race as a designer for NASA:

Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department, says Werner von Braun.

We can try to departmentalize our lives, but it's impossible. Graphic designers work with messages, and the messages mean something. We may think we're responsible only for launching those messages, and certainly there's some comfort (and profit) in thinking that. But if you care about your work, you have to care not only about how it goes up, but where you come down.
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Comments (55)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

I'd very much like to keep this conversation on topic, so let's try to talk about the relationship between graphic design and politics, and keep the mudslinging to a minimum. Thanks.
Michael Bierut
09.20.04 at 11:06

I hate to bolster the cliché but we may be paragraph people who are functionally illiterate. (Present company excepted, of course.) In David Books' world Microsoft Office dominates. He didn't leave room for an Adobe alternative.
Gunnar Swanson
09.20.04 at 11:13

As amusing as Brooks often is, the spreadsheet/paragraph thing doesn't quite cut it. He lumped universities in the "paragraph" category even though he implied that "spreadsheet" meant a quantitative orientation. One could make a case for what mathematicians have in common with sociologists and not with accountants but Brooks didn't even try to make it.
Gunnar Swanson
09.20.04 at 11:27

I find Brooks' theory, and other essentialist categorizers like it, quite limiting. Unless you work in the David Carson vein, most designers work with numbers, geometry, and organizational systems. Working with math doesnt make you simplistic as the article seems to suggest.

Malevich and the Constructivists were quite mathematical people who believed in the universal appeal of geometry, and they were all good Marxists.
Manuel Miranda
09.20.04 at 11:58

Numbers, words and ... images? Where was I reading recently about the visual "illiteracy" (illogocy?) of the public—of how we [the people] are so trained to think with words and numbers that students entering design programs feel genuinely handicapped in a visual environment? The point being that there is a third "sort of person" that is obvious to me, if not to David Brooks.

Politically, most visual/arts people I know are the leftist-leaning of all, but then Canada, as you know, is a hotbed of raving Socialists, myself included.

I do know one designer who is somehow politically right-of-center, but to be honest I've been afraid to ask just how much. I forgive him because he's exceptionally bright.
marian bantjes
09.20.04 at 12:19

If Brooks analysis is akin to the left and right hemisphere of the brain.

Which I doubt.

The Left being Lineal, analylic, verbal, and logical.
Came into national dominence with the western alphabet and western literacy.

The right being, simultaneous, audile-tactile and iconic.
The right hemisphere embodies those artistic and intuitive qualities of Holistic and Integral Design that are are familiar in all great Design, Art and Craft.

That said, most Pure Designer(s) I'm acquainted cringe when asked to create spread sheets. Professionally disdain them.

Recently took my Ferragamo, Bruno Magli, and PRADA
shoes to be shined after wearing them for six months.

Curious to know what Brooks has to say about Suede Shoes. Since I prefer them.

09.20.04 at 12:27

The "spreadsheet people" Brooks refers to must also be color-blind, to be so oblivious to the oceans of red ink implicit in the current administration's fiscal policies...
Fazal Majid
09.20.04 at 12:30

I think the focus on numbers vs. paragraphs is misleading. What Brooks is trying to do is put a pithy formulation to Pierre Bourdieu's division between the part of the bourgeoisie oriented toward economic capital and that which has a higher proportion of its wealth in cultural capital. Historically, the cultural-capital oriented fraction (including intellectuals and all artists, graphic or otherwise) has leaned left, since broadly speaking they tend to see their cultural struggle against the business-oriented bourgeoisie as aligned with the economic struggle of the less fortunate against business interests.
Chris in Boston
09.20.04 at 12:32

I don't think the numbers v. paragraphs argument is valid. What about all the web designers out there? Joshua Davis? Eric Jordan? I'd consider them both very technically acute, but also intensely creative. In a time where Arnold can get elected governor for being essentially a Republican-Kennedy, why can't designers be both logically inclined and creative?
James Song
09.20.04 at 12:59

I appreciate the attempt to make sense of people, but this boxing-in makes me a little uneasy. I consider myself to be a very analytical person. This will be apparent if you read my latest post on book margins, or my post on "varied-scale" playing card design, but these seemingly formulaic solutions are just my way of making my design feel a little less arbitrary. I still appreciate the seemingly magical edge that intuition or "lateral thinking" can have over logic; a trait that doesn't seem to fit "spreadsheet people" criteria.

As far as politics go, I once again appreciate what numbers "money" can do to motivate people or encourage innovation, but when it becomes the only motivator, the toll it can take on the intrinsic curiousity individuals, and thus on the health of a society, can be very damaging.
09.20.04 at 01:47

Marian makes a key point. Many of the designers I know are neither spreadsheet (number) people nor paragraph (word) people. They are image people.

As for being leftist, is it really case that most designers incline strongly towards the left? I would say that a disinclination to engage with politics and issues of left/right has been a marked feature of design in recent years - in both Europe and the US. The factionalism and position-taking of traditional politics, let alone upfront, hands-on, ideological engagement, is seen as uncool. Call it: the indifferent party.

Michael is right, though, that there is no escaping politics (can't tell you how exhilarated I was to hear you come right out and say that, Michael), though so far this thread's commenters have delicately sidestepped that point and avoided anything so unambiguous as waving the red flag.
Rick Poynor
09.20.04 at 01:53

It's a dumb metaphor that lacks explanatory power or precision.
09.20.04 at 02:20

While I agree with those who've in essence said the definitions are way too narrow, there is something to this. I've always been fairly analytical for a graphic designer, and eventually found a home in web design. I've never felt comfortable in design or studio classes in college. I've always been more interested in the nuts and bolts and tools. I've always eschewed the "artist" label, preferring "designer." I've often considered most other "Real Graphic Designers™" to be way too pretentious to deal with unless absolutely necessary. I also tend to be more conservative, politically, though as I age it's harder to classify my opinions on most issues as following to one side or the other.
John B
09.20.04 at 05:10

I still maintain that this division is dumb. It's reflective of the dichotomous nature of American thinking. I don't think it's quite so simple as creative = democrat, noncreative = right. also, i dont think designers are only image people, they are language people as well.

the ethos of the maverick, whose banner quite a few american designers wave (carson, victore, earls), is more in tune with the basic principles of the republican party: less authoritative involvement and regulation, more freedom fiscally, and more individualistic aims towards 'self-expression'. yet most designers i know are left-leaning. but then again, when was the last time a well-paid designer didnt look for a tax break?

Manuel Miranda
09.20.04 at 06:12

Thanks to Michael Bierut for posting this. I think there are several intriguing responses to what I feel is a very interesting DO entry. I think Manuel Miranda's latest post which critiicizes Brooks' approach as fostering the "dichotomous nature of American thinking" is right on. Still, I feel that Michael's use of it was simply an effective way for us to look at our field critically in concrete terms. To me, having this simplified theory as a starting point is just a doorway into a more involved inquiry. As stated, the real question was basically about where designers fall on the political spectrum. Right? I mean, correct?

Sorry if this all seems obvious. Design and politics are impossible to separate as far as I'm concerned—especially when viewed in as broad of a context as these questions involve. I'd like to think we all lean to the left (my direction of choice). If not, okay. But skirting this issue or not wanting to talk about it is what we already get everyday.

Which leads me to a point that may be discussed elsewhere (if so, please direct me). I guess my real curiousity regarding all of this is how the Pentagram partners—and firms with major corporate clients in general—approach this when dealing with some of their heavy hitters (Citibank, etc.). How do design and politics play out in these situations? Any feedback would be great. Thanks.
09.20.04 at 07:19

I passionately care where my rockets land.

I lean right or what this blog considers right. But to be more accurate, I strive to be an Objectivist which in essence is a classic liberal. Manuel Miranda has it pretty well summed up: "less authoritative involvement and regulation, more freedom fiscally, and more individualistic aims towards 'self-expression."

When I left University, I was fashioned by my professors as a pop-liberal. My information and understanding of society, economics, and politics was formed by my instructors and reinforced by my peer group. And both were consuming the same left-leaning media and rarely questioned it's accuracy or motives.

I see leftist spending a great deal of time working to defend ideas they were given by somone else in their late teens and early twenties. It's hard to loose one's religion, and it was tough for me when I started to question many of my core beliefs -- many shared by participants in this forum.

I don't think you'll get many confessed conservative designers here. Most designers I work with are red-staters. But most haven't heard of Design Observer.
Brian Collins
09.20.04 at 09:56

You ask, "What is the relationship between graphic design and politics?" The answer is absolutely none. The rules of design and the success of design is going to be exactly the same no matter which party you support. If you are really talking about design, your political preference won't be an issue even if the reason you are doing design is for political reasons. Good design is good design independent of the political intention behind it. Your attempt to force a relationship between the two continues to confuse me.

The reality of the situation is that their are very good designers on both the right and the left. To imply that creatives are going to lean towards a political preference seems futile. Whether you like it or not, design is a neutral entity. I don't object to Republicans doing design for the right, or Democrats doing design for the left. What I object to is people placing a party affiliation to graphic design and using a discussion about design to push a political agenda. This is the mistake that you continue to make.
Adrian Hanft
09.20.04 at 10:34


I'm glad you care so deeply about design. I do too. But I am curious if you could please tell us what these "rules of design" are. Also, your view of "using a discussion about design to push a political agenda" is confusing to me. My experience with design is that it is absolutely entwined with so many other things that go on in the world. And like it or not, politics are indeed very far-reaching. Your view of what design is or what this site is supposed to be is just far too narrow for me. I think this is the mistake that you continue to make.

Yes, there are projects that come and go, some successful, some less so. And yes, politics don't have to enter into it directly. But, we are talking about our discipline as a whole. Think gestalt—one of my favorite "rules of design."

And this ain't mudslingin', just good old fashioned debate. Something that I feel this site is supposed to be about. Regardless of your political views. Cheers.
09.20.04 at 11:48

Great discussion and interesting post. I would like to make one thing clear. Adrian and I, the creators of BE A DESIGN GROUP, would like to keep our discussions on our site away from pushing a political view point. As for the other twelve Authors on our site, I can not presume to speak. We have some very conservative and some extremely liberal authors on our site, but Adrian and I ask them to stay away from pushing their ideals.

Just because I don't want to mix design and politics does not mean that I am part of what Poynor calls the "indifferent party". On the contrary, I am very political and opinionated. I just choose to not voice my political opinion in the design arena. As for what Michael says about the impossibility to, "separate your political beliefs from your professional life" I totally agree. I choose my freelance clients and employers carefully so I will not promote something I am opposed to. I am well aware of the power of design and conscious of where my "rockets" come down. With that said, Design and Politics are two different beasts. They can be separated. Just because the work that I do is political doesn't make design political. Design is there for anyone to use: violent environmentalist to white supremist. Why don't we just let our work speak for our beliefs instead of pushing our beliefs from whatever platform we can grab.

I am beginning to realize that one of my major beefs with mixing design and politics stems from celebrities using their platform to spread their propaganda. Whether they are famous movie stars, musicians or designers they think that the fact that they are famous makes them an expert in politics. Many times those opinions are uninformed and extremely slanted.
Bennett Holzworth
09.21.04 at 01:14

Some solid statements, Bennett. I was growing concerned after seeing reference on your site to the NPR program regarding font forensics, Bush's military record, Hoefler, etc. I figured this alone shows that design and politics can indeed be related. This is a point that seems to escape Adrian in his insistence that there is absolutely no relatlionship between design and politics. Good to hear a more balanced perspective on that topic.

Having said that, I have to disagree with your take on celebrities. Since when is stating an opinion or voicing a stance on an issue propaganda? Plenty of other folks do the same in news shows, state of the union addresses, etc. And there is a great record of politically-motivated poster design that is at the heart of our profession's history. Wasn't this a bunch of designers using their platform to communicate a message they believed in?

Anyway, just a few thoughts before getting back to work. Cheers.
09.21.04 at 03:54

While designers may lean more to the left, advertising people always lean right. My thinking is that ad people always seem to make much much more money than us graphic designers -- so therefore they must be Republicans! For example you wouldn't expect to see a graphic designer playing golf, but can you imagine an advertising exec not hanging out at the country club?

Even look at our industry terms - ad agencies run "campiagns" while type minded designers always worry about - "widows" and "orphans"! I rest my case...

: )
Michael Pinto
09.21.04 at 04:45

I agree with Rick. Designers are in most cases neither number or word people but image people.

Their left orientation means mostly that they are rebelling against image. It is very rare that designers (also the ones we might consider left ones) take context of (visual) communication in to account. Context in terms of the designers impact or the impact of their work on society and culture.

There are certain iniciatives in the design world and it looks to me that they are becoming more and more - that encurage responsible design practice.
But to get to the problem of selfreferential image world i think it is important to make a step from the "First things first manifesto" to DESIGN IS NOT ENOUGH.

Designers are cultural mediators. The need for (social) responsibility comes from their position. From the nature of their profession.

I don't think that politics should be what designers should talk about all the time, but awareness of the facts that design is (co) shaping the environment and of the position of power which is a result of that fact should be always present.

Design practice is never neutral. I can imagine to separate design and politics in theory- but never in practice.

Oliver Vodeb
09.21.04 at 04:53

It is amusing to me how Americans are attracted to simple categorizations. You are reduced to either this or that. A graphic that appeared in the NYTimes recently ( captured the ridiculousness of this. This is why you end up with a choice between the worse & the worst. Where did the complex & sophisticated people go? Replaced by cowboys, I guess.
this or dat
09.21.04 at 07:32

Of course the metaphor is an oversimplification. That's what a metaphor's-for. I feel like we've covered that enough.

Just as jb asked in an earlier post, I'd be more curious to read how designers balance the line between their own political leanings and the orientation of a particular client or project:
"I guess my real curiousity regarding all of this is how the Pentagram partners—and firms with major corporate clients in general—approach this when dealing with some of their heavy hitters (Citibank, etc.). How do design and politics play out in these situations?"

I had the recent experience of working on a web project with an agency for a fairly large real estate management company; while I don't know the political leanings of the "powers that be", a meeting one day with the marketing team somehow converted into a political situation. To my surprise, everyone in the room had the same leanings; considering the apparently strong divide in our country right now on the issue of politics, it was a relief to me that everyone in the meeting was on the same page. With the current environment, political disagreement can quickly degrade into something else; while I won't volunteer my political stance on much anything in a client situation, if I'm asked I certainly won't lie.

Personally, I try to be careful about the people and businesses for whom I do work (the reasons for this extend beyond the political). Since a lot of my work seems to come from referrals, the "screening" has already been done the majority of the time. But in those cases where a referral isn't involved, I try to be careful about what projects I take so that I don't find myself promoting something I can't support, ethically, morally, or politically.
Andrew Twigg
09.21.04 at 09:05

Many times those opinions are uninformed and extremely slanted.

Is it even possible to have an opinion that isn't "slanted" in some regard? While I can't defend anyone being uninformed, not knowing the facts doesn't negate your right to an opinion. If everyone has the right to vote, then everyone has the right to talk about politics. Democracy makes experts of us all, even designers.
mandy brown
09.21.04 at 11:09

If politics were divorced from design discussions, why not anything else not related to pure design—family, food, relationships, music, literature, our environment ... and what would a discussion about design without any of those things look like? I guess it would be about margins and kerning, etc.

But even so ...

As a left-leaning designer, I am very influenced by my politics in the way I design visually. For instance, I favour a red colour palette to a blue one (and is it not a conspiracy that Pantone does not have a really good, true, rich red, but they have the blues nailed?). Small type, and lots of it represents the masses: I tend to put it near the bottom of the page with larger headlines over top as a commentary on the domination of the (large, fat) rich over the poor. The arts I often represent as marginalized: literally reduced to small embellishments of personality in the margins. I am fond of the witty intrusion of the homeless person represented as disconcerting elements unexpectedly placed in the layout, particularly at the base of a tall column of sanserif type. I sometimes allow rampant letterfit adjustment (uneven spacing) and excessive glyph scaling to allude to the lack of state-sponsored childcare options. Grids and rules define similar lines in our society, and many of my layouts, viewed interpretively, reveal policing, economic division or, in at least one instance, allocation of governmental spending. A smog of type, the polluted image (particularly of the CEO), a sludgy typeface, all have been used in an effort of subtle, political commentary.
marian bantjes
09.21.04 at 01:09

An article on conservatives in academia in the Chronicle of Higher Education is semi-related. It mentions that conservatives often feel like their prospects in academia are limited so they go into other lines of work. Self selection for graphic designers takes place on many ways and many levels. People interested in making money aren't as likely to go to art school so art schools are likely to be full of people more hostile than average to business and commerce. The mythology of art students supports a leftish (or at least anti-conservative) lean and art schools often substitute Marxist essays about art and artists for a wider notion of "general education." People with conservative politics might find all of this rather offputting and feel that they are not welcome. People who stick with it and are uncomfortable with commerce will choose graphic design over advertising. . .
Gunnar Swanson
09.21.04 at 02:42

I'd like to add a few things here. I think Michael's post is a vital one, quite aside from Brooks' reductive binary opposition in the Times. I also think that the folks who've suggested that we stop trying to 'force' a connection between design and politics are being, well, political. To do so would require rewriting the entire history of graphic design, removing anything that suggested even the merest whiff of a link between the two. Good luck on that score.

A couple of people have asked that Michael talk about design and politics in the context of Pentagram. Michael has of course mentioned in the past that Pentagram has worked for "all the big bad ones" (in the context of debates about FTF2000). I understand that he can't reveal anything compromising here, but some broad brushstrokes would be instructive.

Finally, I have just written something on my own weblog (toot toot) that addresses an instructive, if admittedly extreme, example of a piece of award-winning promotional design that is, to me, the direct result of wilfully ignoring the link between graphic design and politics.


Matt Soar
09.21.04 at 02:59

I've noted the request that I address how designers who work with large corporate clients reconcile that with their political views. I guess I'm not sure how that was meant. I don't raise political issues in client meetings, but I have had, for instance, a political poster of mine reproduced in the New York Times. I didn't get any negative response. Maybe it's because my clients are sympathetic or at least tolerant, or maybe because my expressions haven't been sufficiently strident to anger them. Or maybe the credit line was too small.

I also generally try to work for clients that I like personally who are doing something that I understand, am curious about, and/or admire. I don't have anything against working for giant corporations. I try not to do anything just for the money. I have no trouble reconciling this with my political views.

Each partner in my firm works for whatever clients he or she wants, whether they are big or small, commercial or non-profit. On this site I don't speak for anyone but myself. Hope this answers some questions. Feel free to raise other ones.
Michael Bierut
09.21.04 at 05:12

Thanks Michael. With the benefit of reading your response, I am inclined to think that there may be really productive ways we can begin to talk about politics and our own design practices that don't necessarily come down to party politics or whether or not we work for Big Corporations. For example (and I don't expect Michael to answer these!):

1. What does it mean to be a designer, right now? How do we project 'professionalism'? Perhaps through the ways we carry ourselves, what we wear, how we behave around our colleagues (junior vs senior; women vs men) and clients (is it different? how so?). Erving Goffman once suggested that waitstaff in restaurants have 'backstage' and 'frontstage' personas, ie once they walk back into the kitchen, the glazed smile might drop, the shoulders might relax, and there maybe groans or expletives or.... Same for flight attendants (Arlie Hochschild calls it the 'managed heart'). Is there a frontstage/backstage for designers?

2. Is there a point at which we make a conscious decision in a meeting with a client not to pursue a certain line of conversation? Why? When? What happens if the client is over familiar? Or unbelievably rude?

3. If we go home and find ourselves complaining about certain experiences in the studio or with a client, what form do these complaints take? Why couldn't they be aired at work?

4. What hiring and promotion practices do we employ? When was the last time we thought about the current gender/racial/ethnic balance in our office? Does it matter?

5. If we do pro bono work, why? And for whom? (I once had a boss who went fishing for a 'charity' account purely on the basis of how good it would make the company look; never mind asking his staff what they mattered to them outside office hours.)

6. What kind of representational strategies are we using when we use photography or illustration featuring people? On some level we have to rely on stereotypes, since they're a common shorthand for all of us, but are the ones we're using in any way offensive? Did we ask anyone else to find out?

And so on. Just to say that maybe 'politics and design' can mean many things without it having to rely on discussing choices between political parties or talking about evil clients.
Matt Soar
09.21.04 at 06:39

It is amusing to me how Americans are attracted to simple categorizations.

This is the greatest self-contradiction I've heard all day. Unless this person is an American, of course.
09.21.04 at 07:45

Just a bit of trivia: Left and Right.

If you look into your dusty history books, you'll see that Design not only HAD a political agenda, it WAS a political agenda in itself. Becoming a Designer then IMPLIED a political position. Maybe this is still the case, or maybe it should be.
09.21.04 at 08:14

i have to disagree that this article is a metaphor, it is a categorization. metaphors do not exist for over-simplification, quite the opposite. metaphors are allegorical and capture what discursive language cannot.

i dont know why it is considered a self-contradiction that americans oversimplify things. i understand that it is condescending, but not a self-contradiction.

yes, i agree that trying to separate design from politics is indeed political. design is part of public life. but i dont think using red over blue is exactly a political action. perhaps an ironic aesthetic rebellion, but not a significant protest. coca-cola is red.
manuel miranda
09.21.04 at 11:04

Quite a bit of design is about furthering and clarifying the efforts of businesses. Since businesses generally avoid being upfront about their political beliefs for fear of turning away customers (just like dinner-table conversations with people you don't know), design for business-related customers follows suit.

Obviously, as has already been said, ethics and politics play into the type of clients designers choose, and vice versa. This all reminds me of the independent contractors on the Death Star conversation from the movie Clerks.
Ryan Nee
09.22.04 at 12:34

Really, I'm not sure where to start. I guess first, it's obvious that the article while quite simplified does have some basis in reality. If you've ever worked in corporate America, certainly the case can be made that the 'business' types really are more attached to their spreadsheets and 'designer' types more in-tune with the message. But politically, I can't say that the comparison works out the same way.

Certainly in the eyes of the BE A DESIGN GROUP design can be separated from politics. And I would be the first to argue otherwise. We are all influenced by the world around us, our experiences, our friends, everything that we do affects how and what we design and that includes our politics. And you cannot separate, no matter how hard you try, the two from one another. And even in doing so, are you not making a somewhat political statement?

As far as this site pushing an 'agenda,' I just don't see it. I writer's sharing their opinions but I don't see an agenda other than having a forum where design is discussed in the context of the world that we live in. There is no design tunnel vision here and I find that perfectly wonderful. Honestly, I think designers just speaking strictly about design itself would get a bit boring. Or as Marian put it, we'd be limited to discussions of kerning and leading. Not what I'd call the most inspiring stuff (no offense to those of you who are type designers) to hang ones hat on. But talk about design and its role in the bigger world, I'll catch that train anytime. All aboard.

09.22.04 at 12:38

I was trying to be extreme in order to make the point that graphic design by itself
is not political, it is neutral. I suppose I was dodging Michael's real question
of what is the relationship between a graphic designer and his or her political
views. I never said that graphic designers shouldn't have political opinions.
I definitely have mine, but for me they don't have an impact on my ideas about
design, so I keep them separate. Obviously, the relationship for Design Observer
is different and they are comfortable with blurring the lines. It is my opinion
that endorsing a presidential candidate is not a good idea for a blog about design
to do. Judging by the lack of similar comments, here, nobody else really minds.
Hopefully you see the difference between talking about design within the context
of a political issue (Design Observer almost pulls it off here), and putting a political spin on a design
issue (apology accepted, William).
Adrian Hanft
09.22.04 at 01:10

> It is my opinion that endorsing a presidential candidate is not a good idea for a blog about design to do.

Well, I think this is the beauty of blogs - specially in contrast to traditional venues like magazines, where you have to meet editorial standards. Both journalistic and political. If there is a trend in Design Observer's posts it is that each author will present their sole opinion even if the other site participants do not see it in the same light. Should their political views permeate into their writing? Yes. No. Whatever. It's really not up to us (the readers) to determine that. If you want politically diluted design discourse pick up any magazine.

Now, about this flush left issue... It's hard to tell. Like Michael, I have the sense that most designers tend to be lefties but that is surely not factually the case. And in regards to the bundling of Americans into tight, little divisions... it's the American Way!

And me, I'm flush left with a big, victorian drop cap.
09.22.04 at 09:31

I consider myself a political person. I think in some way,shape or form we are all political people, whether we realize it or not. In my somewhat limited view of the design world (having only graduated this past may) it seems to me like it would be a lost cause to separate design form politics and compose your ideas solely based on a "free" and "clear" mind that is not "tainted" by political ideas.

but isn't that one of the inherent natures of design? the idea that we all come from different walks of life, different standpoints, different interests, etc. and this all plays part in how we solve design problems?

i agree that if you are a designer that has gained some notariety and you use that supposed "fame" to spread your message that could be seen as selfish and or out of place. Maybe its because I have been involved with a subculture for the past 10 or so years(punk rock, or whatever you want to clal it) that prides itself on political awareness and the open sharing of ideas and open artistic expression that i do not get affected by people stating their opinions through whatever it is that they are creating.

maybe i am just selfish. maybe i am slanted to the left. i don't really care to categorize myself either way. but all i know, and i can only speak for myself, is that i will never be able to separate my politics from my design. design is a platform that speaks to the public and is for the public, so even if i don't slap a "vote for kerry" or "f*ck bush" into my newest ad campaign i am working on, i think that my sensitivity and awareness of my beliefs naturally makes me gravitate towards the kind of work that i do.

im sorry if this seems like im rambling at all. but as a young adult in america, right now is the most politically charged time this nation has seen in my lifetime. i am constantly bombarded by media dipping into politics and people telling me i need to vote and who i need to vote for, who is resposible for the mistakes (if any, im not trying to start an argument here) in iraq, and why michael moore is or isn't an idiot, amongst many other things. Its constantly on my mind. and if design is supposed to be my interpretation and reaction to displaying the visual organization of information to the public (im trying to be as general as possible here) i don't see how politics will not cross over from time to time. we are politics. politics are about us and our lives. they are our creation and are influenced not just by the politicians and voters but by all of us in some way. i know that times have changed since this country began, but at a time this was a country of the people and for the people. and too some extent it still is. media is one of the only remaining outlets that any singular person can make their voice heard, especially with the way our governement is tied into business - look at michael moore, shepard fairey, and countless others who were "nobody's" at one time and now major political forces - and i for one don't see the need to remove designers from the list of people who can use their abilities to make their voice heard.

but thats just me and my two cents.
justin kay
09.22.04 at 10:27

"I never said that graphic designers shouldn't have political opinions. I definitely have mine, but for me they don't have an impact on my ideas about design, so I keep them separate."

I'm sorry, but you cannot design in a vacuum. There is no way that anyone can produce graphic design that is not in some sense political. As I'm fond of saying to my students, you cannot not communicate. And communication inevitably involves choices that reflect the designers' investments, influences, values, beliefs, call it what you will - however abstract or allusive it might be. In short, their politics.

"keep them separate"; "blurring the lines." Whose lines? And what is so threatening about a blog author endorsing a presidential candidate?
Matt Soar
09.22.04 at 12:33

One of the things I tell students is that your graphic design will only be great if it's profoundly about you and that the most important thing to remember is that it has nothing to do with you.

I'm not sure what the claim is when people say that their politics and their design are inextricably bound. Everyone makes choices based on their philosophy (whether they know it or not) and those choices partially define their work. If we accept the model of a political spectrum (a model which is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the problems with American politics) then it is clear that graphic designers (apolitical or otherwise) tend to fall into the left part of the spectrum. The 20th century practice of graphic design has a significant part of its origins in leftist politics (but it owes a great debt to fascism, too.) Does this mean that there is some inevitable left tilt of design and designers? Is anyone claiming that a political conservative is at a disadvantage in trying to do graphic design? How?
Gunnar Swanson
09.22.04 at 01:04

Matt Soar is right when he says that all design work has a political dimension. A confusion in this thread arises because of the different methods that people are using to analyze the situation. I'll loosely base this argument on some ideas discussed in Raymond Geuss' The Idea of a Critical Theory.

When we say that design is political, we are basically saying that it has an ideological dimension.

We can think of ideology in the descriptive, anthopological sense-- understanding that everyone's work is informed by the beliefs and attitudes that he or she happens to have. To say that design is political in this sense should be rather trivial (it is ideology to be found and explained), but it is an important point to make since some people seem not to acknowledge it.

Taking a more proactive stance, we also can criticize ideology in the perjorative sense-- as a "delusion" or "false consciousness", "which stabilizes or legitimizes domination or hegemony". If we criticize the attitude that many designers have-- that it is possible to be leftist and still do work, or desire to do work, for big conservative corporations -- then we are trying to make them aware of the delusions handed to them by the powers that be. To say that designers, right or left, are in fact mostly conservative would be an example of bringing false consciousness to light.

There is also "ideology" in the positive sense -- "something to be constructed" -- taking into account the actual desires and social position of a group of people and helping them to adopt a set of beliefs that will actually serve their best interests.

So, while it is correct to say that all design is political (or ideological), the dispute is perhaps over how conscious our involvement with politics should be. Those who would like to separate politics from responsible design practice seem to be insufficiently aware of the possibility of false consciousness (and thus "working against themselves" as far as their set-aside political convictions go) and the primary role of communication as making clear a diagnosis (of insufficient human progress) and working to remedy the situation.
Tom Gleason
09.22.04 at 03:04

The term "political" is very broad. There are many aspects of design that can be explicitly political or can be read as having political implications. Off the top of my head:

The client: What does he/she/it do? How do they do it? Is it ethical? Who is paying for it? Who profits?

The message: What is being said or depicted? What is being sold to whom? Does it mislead or inform?

Design process: Who is making the decisions and how? What are the power dynamics? What is the decision making process?

Ideological assumptions: How does it portray what is normative? Whose point of view does it express? What are the power dynamics inherent in this point of view? Who benefits? At whose expense?

Context: How is the design or product located within the broader cultural context? Does in engage the public or serve private interests? (or both?)

The venue: How is it distributed or shown? Who owns the means of distribution? How was it acquired? Who has access? Who does not? How is this determined?

Production: How is the product manufactured? Is printed or manufactured in an abusive or ethical labor environment? Is the manufacturing process sustainable? Does it use toxic processes or materials? Are the materials renewable?

Function: How is the product used by its audience? Who has access and who does not? When used as intended, what are the consequences?

Temporal existence: What is the life span of the product? Is it disposable? Reusable? Recyclable?

I'm sure I'm missing a bunch, but you get the idea.
09.22.04 at 06:29

I would like to comment on a post made earlier by Gunnar Swanson about the place of "righties" in the academic design world...

Some quick history...I returned to college to obtain a BFA in graphic design after a 10 year hiatus from college. I can attest that there is a significant amount of pressure to conform to the left in the campus community in general,and in the design program in particular. If it weren't for the fact that I am older, and can be downright stubborn, I would probably have abandoned this path long ago. The comment suggesting a "weeding out" of those right of center may be true, based on my experiences.

The largest source of my frustration tends to be the instructors who tout their political beliefs with their authority as instructors. I am often made to feel that my beliefs have no part in my design, or that I am somehow mentally inferior because of my beliefs. I make a conscious effort to be informed, and to try to pick what is real out of the messages that are available on any given subject. In short, I try to be aware of my own "Why's". I just generally find myself "right", not always, but much of the time. And for this, I am made to feel that I must self-edit in order to achieve grades with which I can maintain my GPA and scholarships.

I do not think that anyone would agree that this is the sort of activity that should be going on in an educational venue. I would hope that there would be an appreciation of good design, regardless of the message. I can admire el Lisitsky's design without supporting his political aims.

While the subject matter of design may be political, I do not feel that the intellectual act of designing is in any way political. Philosophical, yes, but that is a very much broader and deeper thing than the word "political" implies.
09.23.04 at 02:00

"...I do not feel that the intellectual act of designing is in any way political."

I Think it's interesting that this is the conversation that's being had now. I'm of the perspective that pretty much everything we do is political. Yes, I'd even say that it's easy to support a position of even breathing and definitely drinking water as being something political - but that's a very different conversation.

Rodney, I think it's unfortunate that you feel singled out in your setting due to your leanings. I feel it's important to align yourself with something philosophically (that includes politally) in the same spirit as self whether it be choosing an education, a client, or where you eat your lunch. Of course, your situation was never a consideration when I thought of the academic world.

The things we do on a daily basis are politicized by our surroundings, by our sheer existence in a greater context. I think this makes the relationship between "politics" and our practice (referring to what we do on a daily basis, not to its continuous exercise) worth all the more scrutiny. This has to be one of the major factors in Design's apparent identity crisis; navigating the day-to-day with an undercurrent of meaning to every action can only cause problems when it comes time to put the pencil to paper or cursor to artboard.

And ultimately, that's what makes "figuring it out" - which clients to work for, when to say yes and when to say no, how to represent a given idea... the list goes on - so difficult. How can I advance design if I cannot know my client? What do I do when a political difference is brought to light or interferes with the work being done? Is that a bad thing?

So, for me, choosing jobs and clients carefully is something which must be done. This doesn't mean my clients are perfect, and it absolutely doesn't mean I am. But I must navigate what is negotiable and what is not, and do my best to constantly re-check my alignments and priorities. And when a political difference somehow becomes a big deal, it's taken in stride and will inform the future.
Andrew Twigg
09.23.04 at 02:41

Your comments make sense to me. I think your point about the difference between philosophical and political is "right" on. I think that is a nuance that most of the people commenting hear don't recognize. I disagree with people who say everything we do is political, but compared to most people here, my definition of politics is narrowly limited to government. Is it possible that the inability to make the distinction between politics and your personal philosophy is a trait of people on the left? When someone is so blinded by their ideology that they can't drink a glass of water without pushing their political agenda, that is a problem. When a Conservative has to take into consideration the Liberal bias of a school he wants to attend, that is a problem. The lefties on this site are pulling a classic liberal trick. They say they want to be free to voice their political opinions, but what they really want is to belittle the right. Instead of saying "it is wrong for a liberal professor to insult conservatives," they say, "you should have picked a different college." Instead of saying, "it is wrong for us to turn a discussion about design into a promotion of John Kerry," they say, "everything we do is political so its okay."
Guillermo Roemer
09.23.04 at 07:37


A few thoughts. My philosophy is different than yours on where the political ends and I begin, and that's fine. We can agree to disagree.

1. When this conversation was started, I believe that Mr. Bierut was referring to "political" in your sense of the word. It seemed to have shifted another direction, and it's that to which I was responding. Let's see if we can circle back to where we started.

2. I wouldn't always suggest people choose their education based solely on their position and the position of the school. While my paragraph started with such a statement, I ended it with this one, in essence an "I hadn't thought of it that way before and maybe I need to think again": Of course, your situation was never a consideration when I thought of the academic world. Of course it's wrong for an instructor to insult a student based on their personal beliefs; as an educator, I think that's a travesty. I can't imagine that anyone here feels otherwise.

3. There is a difference between the implicit "political-ness" in actions and in voluntarily raising the issue of politics. This is a big part of the difference between "political" and "political" and probably the reason why we're having such a hard time discussing this. It's one thing for me to recognize the political nature of the act of designing (i.e., that designing is an act that reaches beyond the design itself), it is another thing to bring up my feelings about a political (i.e., of or relating to government) party in a meeting with a client.

So, perhaps we need to return to what I imagine was Mr. Bierut's intention. And I would like to hear what happens when a "conservative" designer does work for a "liberal" client and idologies clash. Anyone?
Andrew Twigg
09.23.04 at 08:44

I think the elephant in the room here is the glaring fact that graphic designers don't own graphic design. All this talk about "personal philosophy" works to obscure the fact that designers don't control or direct their own work.

Gunnar Swanson says that "Everyone makes choices based on their philosophy... and those choices partially define their work." Well, sure - in the same way that a slave's personal philosophy defines the way she picks cotton.

Designers who don't see the place of politics in Graphic Design are people who understand their position as wage slaves. They understand that we don't live in a cooperative, egalitarian society where we negotiate with equals in order to decide what our lives will look like. Instead we obey the orders as they come down.
09.24.04 at 03:07

Greg—There are many occupations where your worker-as-slave rhetoric is compelling but get real. Graphic design is a trade largely occupied by middle class folk who have (or at least had) choices. It is, to mix the metaphor, a volunteer army. If you "obey the orders as they come down" then you have either made a series of bad choices or you are now fairly freely choosing to follow the orders. I'm not saying we always have good choices but the comparison to people who have been forcibly subjected to a life of imprisonment and hard labor is ludicrous and obscene.
Gunnar Swanson
09.24.04 at 03:32

I think you are misunderstaning what I am saying. I don't mean that designers are forced to be designers or are forced to decide what jobs to take (though there is tremendous pressure on most designers to take anything that walks in the door).

I'm saying that the cumulative output of the whole graphic design profession has a political distinct character and that political character is not decided by graphic designers but by the corporations who hire them.
09.24.04 at 04:20

'While designers may lean more to the left, advertising people always lean right. My thinking is that ad people always seem to make much much more money than us graphic designers...'

Not sure if that's true if ad/brand/marketing agencies people are making more money than Design studios but i found this statement from David Ogilvy interesting:

"I have never taken political parties as clients of Ogilvy & Mather. First, because they would preoccupy the best brains of the agency, to the detriment of its permanent clients. Second, because they are bad credit risks. Third, because it would be unfair to those people in the agency who pray for the victory of the opposing party. And finally, because it would be difficult to avoid the chicanery which is endemic in all political campaigns."

"The nine Federal agencies which regulate advertising for products have no say in political advertising. The broadcasting networks, which turn down half the commercials for products submitted to them because they violate their code, do not apply any code whatever to political commercials. Why not? Because political advertising is considered 'protected speech' under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The networks are obliged to broadcast every political commercial submitted to them, however dishonest."

—David Ogilvy
09.26.04 at 12:19

In America, spin is a blood sport. Why doesn't anyone verify the constant streams of abuse going both ways?
Both sides demonise each other! It's ridiculous.

Truth and light are supposed to be central christian values. America is supposed to be a christian country but the lack of clarity and constructive ideas from the politicians is mind boggling to me.

It's all designed for television entertainment. The priority of our leaders seems to be the acquisition of personal wealth and status. Maybe we're partly to blame for creating the desire for that kind of lifestyle.
Ben Weeks
09.29.04 at 02:52

I found Brooks' book to be entirely unoriginal—and with a great lack of depth. There was no new sociological study or interfesting research presented in this book. I found it to be far more of an exploitation, and trite use of old research. Was unfortunate, though the subject is one that is always relevant—though not of new thought.
Christian Palino
10.01.04 at 11:07

The left-right dichotomy itself is far too inadequate to take into account all of the factors that determine where someone stands. As was pointed out earlier, it was originally used to determine where people sat in the French National Assembly; a one-dimensional scale is fine for this purpose, but to describe someone's entire set of philosophies and beliefs? An interesting alternative would be the two-dimensional scale offered at It is obviously still too simple for the task, but is nevertheless far superior, and it could be interesting to see where we stand on their left-right/authoritarian-libertarian scale.
Michael Neilson
10.03.04 at 09:15

This article was a little pretentious in defining people as a whole, but if we have to go there, I will be so bold as to say that all designers and even artists in general lean to the left and there is definately a place for graphic arts in politics, you already have been seeing the logos and advertisments everywhere. I'm actually looking forward to not seeing them anymore. you wanna know what else I'm looking forward to, NO MORE BUSH.......
Ross Ciaramitaro
10.27.04 at 03:07

It's a simplistic way of breaking it down, but could it have something to do with location?

The design profession is largely centered in urban areas (liberal) because, of course, that is where the work is. The hubs of American design are New York (liberal) and San Francisco (liberal). So maybe the location of the work draws a liberal crowd, or maybe the profession chooses the liberal setting?

Probably a bit of both.
Nat Bolton
12.16.04 at 02:07

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Michael Bierut studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati, and has been a partner in the New York office of Pentagram since 1990. Michael is a Senior Critic in Graphic Design at the Yale School of Art.
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BOOKS BY Michael Bierut

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design
Princeton Architectural Press, 2007

Looking Closer 5
Allworth Press, 2006

Looking Closer 4
Allworth Press, 2002

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

Looking Closer 1
Allworth Press, 1994

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Mr. Vignelli's Map
Vignelli Celebration: Massimo Vignelli's 1972 New York City subway map is a beautiful example of information design that was ultimately rejected by its users.

Reflections on The Ephemeral World, Part One: Ink
An elegy to the makeready — those sheets of paper, re-fed into a press to get the ink balances up to speed, leaving a series of often random, palimpsest-like, multiple impressions on a single surface — in the digital age.

Cranbrook Commencement Address
"I come to you, like all commencement speakers, as an emissary from the future." The commencement address delivered by Julie Lasky at the Cranbrook Academy of Art on May 9, 2008.

Greening the Grocery Store
It turns out that the "recycling symbol" at the bottom of my yogurt container had nothing to do with its recyclability. So why was it there? My curiosity led to findings around which I built a design class.

O.H.W. Hadank
Paul Rand held Hadank in the highest esteem because he practiced modernist formal principles even though he did not follow its dogma or style. And most important, as Rand said “Hadank was then and always an original. A profile of O.H.W. Hadank by Steven Heller...